The Player of Games is the first fiction book recommended by Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of Books project, so I thought I’d give it a go. Sci-fi is a deceptively hard category, because it is so easy to fall into one of two traps: you either focus too much on the ‘science’ part which sets up the dystopia/future scenario to the detriment of the fundamental character development part, or you do the reverse, and almost forget to keep the ‘science’ part cohesive and you end up just annoying your readers with plot holes. This book manages to avoid both.

The Player of Games is the second book in the acclaimed Culture series, but I read it without reading any Banks books previously and still enjoyed it immensely. The book is fairly short, at about 300 pages, yet covers several years of action; reading for a few hours a day at a very leisurely pace, I finished it in 3 days.

The book is set in a society where equality, peace, and prosperity reign in the background, while we follow a game-player called Jernau Morat Gurgeh. Gurgeh is a master of games; strategic, board, cards. Yet he finds himself in a rut; like a mid-life crisis for the highly intelligent, he is bored by the hardest challenges available to him. So he reaches out to his society’s version of a Secret Service, called Contact, to see if they have anything ‘interesting’ for him.

And, of course, they do. (It would be a fairly boring story if they didn’t). But this challenge requires him to move to a primitive and barbaric society to take part in a game that every single person in the dominion plays. It is a game so fiendishly complex that the winner becomes Emperor, and one’s prowess at the game is a signal for one’s prowess at meeting the problems of life. The game is so fundamental to the way the Empire is organized that the Empire is named for the game: Azad holds together the Empire of Azad. Gurgeh is initially reluctant to participate due to the years involved in travel and training for the game, but is persuaded to take the challenge thanks to a blackmailing drone. And so our hero begins his journey to play in the most complex game of his life, for the highest stakes he has faced.

But the thing is that Gurgeh is not really a hero. He’s not even like one of the modern antiheroes we see in the movies, who we like and root for despite their faults. Gurgeh is not brave, although he takes risks; he is not a great wit, although he is smart; and he is not good, despite pouring himself into battling the forces of evil he meets in his Azad opponents. The main thing that draws the reader to him is an ability to identify with his primary condition of restlessness.

Restlessness is what tempts him to take the chance to play Azad in a place where the inhabitants routinely do terrible things to each other in the course of playing. A desire to do something no one has done before is what gets him into trouble with the blackmailing drone. Despite being very good at what he does, Gurgeh is not happy enough with his life at home to keep going with it, and his fundamental need for change drives the first section of the book. I think that most readers can identify with this, which is why we keep following Gurgeh. Once he has arrived on Azad, our intense dislike of the Azadians and in particular the dominating apices (the third gender, the apex, controls the society) helps us to root for him in each game and new challenge he faces.

On his return from Azad, our hero is not filled with pure victory or pure defeat, but whatever hole drove him away from home seems filled by something. He seems both ready to settle and yet disquieted by what he has seen and done in the Empire. The book ends with Gurgeh standing in the snows around his home, drinking in the view and the cold.

One quick note: I was surprised to find gender a theme of this book. It is not prominently displayed, but Banks is exacting about describing the gender power structures in both Azad and Gurgeh’s home Culture. The apex gender dominates both the females and the males in Azad, and coerces the former to bear their children and the latter to serve as their soldiers and workmen. Castration and rape are frequent ‘physical option’ bets made in the game of Azad, and Gurgeh’s initial reluctance to impose such a penalty on an opponent morphs into acceptance as he discovers the horrific things that the Azadians do to each other in the darkly guarded corners of their society. To be totally honest, I’m still not 100% sure what Banks was trying to say on the subject of gender in this book, but it is too pervasive a theme for a critical reader to fail to notice.

Thanks for reading this review, and as always feel free to email me if you have any critical feedback. The discussion about The Player of Games continues on the Year of Books Facebook page post, so do join in if you’ve read the book.